Bill McKibben wrote recently on Grist.org about how, over the last few years, art has been shouting increasingly stridently about climate:
That torrent of art has been, often, deeply disturbing—it should be deeply disturbing, given what we’re doing to the earth. (And none of it has quite matched the performance work that nature itself is providing. Check out, for instance, James Balog’s time-lapse photography of glaciers crashing into the sea—if we could somehow crowd that thrashing sheet of ice into the Guggenheim for a week, people would truly get it.) But for me, it’s been more comforting than disturbing, because it means that the immune system of the planet is finally kicking in.
Artists, in a sense, are the antibodies of the cultural bloodstream. They sense trouble early, and rally to isolate and expose and defeat it, to bring to bear the human power for love and beauty and meaning against the worst results of carelessness and greed and stupidity. So when art both of great worth, and in great quantities, begins to cluster around an issue, it means that civilization has identified it finally as a threat. Artists and scientists perform this function most reliably; politicians are a lagging indicator.
I wonder, how true is this? Is identifying artists as the “antibodies of the cultural bloodstream” a hopelessly romantic idea, part of McKibben’s relentless optimism, an optimism that has sustained him for twenty years and more as a campaigner? Or will the next few years prove him right in his faith that, not only are artists making work of “great worth, and in great quantities” about the issue , but that art still has a privileged role in how society concieves of itself.
It’s certainly a role that many established artists would feel extremely uncomfortable with; but maybe this isn’t the time for such niceities.